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India damaged

Arun Shouri offers serious suggestions on how to cure a deep-rooted malaise in his new book, says Subhash C Kashyap.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2007 17:19 IST
Subhash C Kashyap

The Parliamentary System: What We Have Made Of It, What We Can Make Of It
Author: Arun Shourie
Publisher: ASA Rupa
Price: Rs 496
Pages: 265

This is a book that needed to be written. And, no one was more eminently suited to do so than Arun Shourie. An eminent journalist and a fearless fighter for the freedom of the press, a conscientious parliamentarian and a distinguished former Union Cabinet Minister, Shourie has the right credentials to look at the parliamentary system both from the inside and from the outside.

The book's sub-title appropriately sums up the approach and the contents of the book by raising the question of what we have made of the Parliamentary system and what we can make of it. India is, no doubt, on the march. The progress being made on various fronts is truly remarkable. Much derided for the 2-3 per cent 'Hindu rate of growth', India is now poised to be one of the fastest growing economies of the world. All this is happening despite the character of our polity and politicians.

It is, however, difficult to fully agree with Shourie when he gives almost all the credit for the progress to "the entrepreneurs and professionals". One cannot be too sure that the "entrepreneurs and professionals" we tend to eulogise are imbued with any particular spirit of patriotism or agenda of serving the people. Also, not all those in politics are entirely corrupt and contemptible. It is true, politics today has also become a profession or a business for earning money and getting rich quick and for wielding power. But the private entrepreneurs and professionals are also not moved by any more altruistic motives.<b1>

Shourie is right. Our political system has been eaten up by termites. It is in ruins, and a case for reform is unassailable. We brag about India being the largest democracy on Earth but for some time now, all democratic norms are being violated with impunity. Constitutionalism and the rule of law are on the verge of a collapse.<b2>

For three years now, we have a Prime Minister who has never won a popular election to any panchayat, municipality state assembly or Lok Sabha. He has been a member of the Rajya Sabha, most interestingly representing the state of Assam. He is not the leader of the Congress Legislature Party or of the UPA. He is a nominee of the 'supreme leader'. If the enemies of constitutionalism have their say, a stage has been reached where the highest office in the land, that of the Head of the Republic, is sought to be so degraded and devalued as to be occupied by another nominee of the same 'supreme leader'. What prevails in the polity today are the diktats of this 'supreme leader' and the power of veto in the hands of the communist friends. This is what we have made of our system of parliamentary democracy.

Shourie's chapter on 'Romanticising the People' reminds one of what a leader of the French Revolution, standing before the statute of liberty, after the revolution, said: "O liberty, what crimes are not committed in thy name." Perhaps, our founding fathers listening to our present day leaders could exclaim: "O People, what crimes are not committed in your name." <b3>

Shourie is fully justified in underlying the fact that Parliament is not the people. Sovereignty vests in the people but neither of the three organs of the State can be said to be supreme or sovereign. But, unfortunately, the judiciary, which was considered the sheet anchor of democracy and individual freedom and a necessary check on the arbitrary executive action or unconstitutional legislation, has also not remained above board and has tried to assume powers which do not belong to its domain.

Shourie rightly laments the role of money muscle and mafia power and of caste, communalism and corruption in elections to Parliament and state assemblies. There is much that is wrong with our electoral system and it is this that may be said to be the queen mother of the termites that eat into the vitals of our body politic. The electoral system is badly divisive of society, encourages the politics of separate identities and vote-banks, and those elected lack representative credentials because in almost each case, the majority is against the winner.<b4>

All these problems have been identified before by scholars, committees and commissions, including the latest National Commission on The Constitution (2003). Also, most-likely-to-be-effective remedies have been suggested. Shourie suggests election by lotteries. It is true that even those elected by lotteries may be of better quality then the present stuff. But that is a voice of utter despair: Surrendering to fate and lotteries may not be the best option. Perhaps, Shourie could have looked at the Blueprint of Political Reforms (2003) that contains several well-re- searched suggestions in this regard.

A culture of unquestioning loyalty to a 'supreme leader' or a dynasty is not the stuff of which the parliamentary system is made. Today, one need have no qualms about involvement in public scandals of misappropriation of public funds, or in criminal cases including those of murder, rape, kidnapping and other heinous crimes, misuse of crores of rupees under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) schemes, or legally occupying offices of profit under the government along with membership of Parliament. For all these can be condoned retrospectively through legislative action, executive connivance or manipulation of the criminal investigation process and the administration of the justice system. Can we still claim to be governed by the rule of law or parliamentary polity?

It is natural to ask where we will go from here and what can be done. All is not lost. We can still refurbish and reform the system. There is a refreshing freshness in Shourie's approach. He suggests a model of good governance through something bordering on a American-style presidential system. In fact, there is no dearth of advice or of reform suggestions on what we can make of the parliamentary system without dumping it. The challenge before all those concerned with the malaise, and having no personal axe to grind is how to bring about the necessary change.

If any systemic change is to be brought about by peaceful constitutional means, it can be done only by those who have come to power though the existing system and have a vested interest in the status quo. After all, why should the direct beneficiaries of a corrupt system change it and dig their own grave? Shourie also agrees and flags the problem.

Democracy and freedom are very tender plants and unless nursed with care, they tend to wither away fast. If our polity and politicians continue their present ways, there is no reason why freedom and democracy should survive for long.

Shourie seems to believe that one of the possible scenarios is that the present 'good' can last and a rejuvenated and strengthened economy can successfully pressurise politicians to change and bring about good governance. Perhaps, this is not to be. For, with all the economic liberalisation and the rest, politics and politicians are still in the driving seat.<b5>

If we want citizen-centric or people-friendly good governance, it can never be achieved through the type of industrial and economic growth we witness. It can come only through political reforms and by break1ng the nexus between business, industry and crime. No one knows it better than Shourie who himself quotes inter alia from the Vohra Committee Report.

The final challenge before votaries of constitutionalism, democracy and rule of law is that (i) if 'free and fair' elections, rule of law and human rights result in criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime, (ii) if there is no political wningness to root out corruption and crime from politics and achninistration, (iii) if those who can bring about reforms refuse to do so, what do we clo, what can we do? Are there any constitutional peaceful ways left open?

All in all, the book is highly educative, makes an absorbing reading, is well documented and contains valuable data and statistics. All those concerned with the present and future of India would do well to grab a copy of this book and read it.

Subhash C Kashyap is former Constitutional Adviser to the Government of India